Soul music makes a comeback

The Grammy nominations of India.Arie and Alicia Keys suggest that neo-soul, as some call it, might steal a little thunder from the party girls and boys.

The Grammys

February 24, 2002|By Sean Piccoli | Sean Piccoli,Special to the Sun

With 13 Grammy nominations going to a pair of rookie soul singers, India.Arie and Alicia Keys, soul music is industry-certified as the latest big thing.

The fast rise of these two performers and the general acclaim flowing toward their peers -- including Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Angie Stone, D'Angelo and Eric Benet -- have the feel of a movement gathering force and demanding attention. This surge of artists who share ideas and influences even has a name: neo-soul.

But let's be real.

Of the 100 tunes on Billboard's latest tally of "Hot R&B / Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks," only a handful could be called soul -- the strain of R&B that prizes melody and songcraft as much as rhythm, and brings the fervor of gospel music to matters of the heart as well as wider social concerns. And only one of these 100 songs appears in the chart's Top 10, "A Woman's Worth" by Keys, who is on her first headlining national tour behind the multi- platinum album Songs in A Minor.

The majority of the sales and airplay activity still belongs to the beat-crazed party girls and boys. Still, there is no missing the resurgence of soul music or the talented artists stoking a movement that is part revival and part reinvention.

That Keys wrote or co-wrote most of A Minor's 15 tracks speaks to a major tenet of soul: Musical ability is a must. Schooling in music -- formal or informal, in church choirs or conservatories -- is a hallmark of the evolution of soul and a recurring fact in the biographies of soul-music greats: Southern lights Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Isaac Hayes and Al Green; Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder out of Motown; Curtis Mayfield from Chicago; Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, creators of the orchestral Philadelphia sound.

The stars of new soul bring some of that dedication to craft to their work. Scott learned more informally than most, singing in Philly coffeehouses and developing her songwriting and singing skills largely on her own. Keys, from New York, is a classically trained pianist. The Atlanta-based Arie sang in school choirs and learned her way around a whole section of brass and wind instruments: saxophone, clarinet, recorder, French horn. D'Angelo, a Virginia preacher's son, was introduced to piano at age 6 and was winning talent shows at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem by age 18. Benet, born in Milwaukee, gained experience singing backup in touring bands.

The electric-not-electronic vibe, sophisticated arrangements and sharp production of the typical new soul record are reflections of an ethic that says: Musical knowledge matters; mastery of instruments is important; software cannot replace a good live band because software has no soul.

But soul has not re-emerged in some kind of backlashing lather. Scott and D'Angelo, for example, show that soul can draw on the verbal percussion and machined rhythms of hip-hop and still retain its old-fashioned sincerity. The forthcoming record by MeShell Ndegeocello -- who has tampered with soul's musical DNA like no one since psychedelic hipster Shuggie Otis -- is said to be steeped in hip-hop as well as jazz, rock, and soul's harder, heavier offspring: funk.

New soul reminds the listener that there is more than one way to be old school. The newcomers are incorporating soul's history into their own music, honoring and interpreting it, without necessarily hiring DJs to scratch on vintage records.

Keys has said that she grew up listening to hip-hop, but had a course-changing revelation at age 13: She got a copy of Marvin Gaye's 1971 classic, What's Going On. The influence of Gaye and Wonder on Keys' music is audible.

Many fans of classic soul are elated by the arrival of Keys and others. The only thing that bugs Bob Davis, founder and owner of the Web site Soul-Patrol.com, is the labeling. "People such as myself and even some of the artists that we're talking about are actually offended by the term 'neo-soul,' " Davis says, calling the phrase "an attempt to pigeonhole music into a category where it doesn't belong and an attempt to separate the music from its past."

Davis argues that so-called neo-soul is "actually a continuation of music from the 1970s and part of the 1980s that got pushed into the background with the advent of rap music."

He also feels the Grammy rush to praise Keys and Arie ignores slightly older, more seasoned performers such as female vocalist N'Dambi and Sandra St. Victor. Some observers have argued that among women in contemporary soul, Scott and Stone are making the more skillful and interesting music, but aren't garnering as much attention because, unlike Keys and Arie, they don't fit the media's narrow ideal of glamour.

The worry is that, as often happens, excessive attention will inflate the trend beyond reason and recognition. The Grammys are rushing in to consummate the coup -- seven nominations to Arie, six to Keys. Record companies, in turn, can be relied on to saturate the market with Keys-Arie knockoffs and make everybody sick of soul.

The only brake on that tendency is that gifted soul musicians are harder to replicate than teen-pop divas.

Sean Piccoli is a music critic for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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